The Power of the Words We Choose

September 1, 2021

In August we completed the capstone of an almost two year collaboration with a local reentry council and rape crisis center to bring resources into the community for survivors of sexual assault who were also returning home after incarceration. These resources and the story of our collaboration is found in the Supporting Survivor Reentrants: Learning to Serve Those Returning Home resource manual

One of the challenges our team faced was achieving a shared language around sexual violence and formerly incarcerated survivors. We needed language that took into consideration the culture of fear and silence that forbids disclosures. We needed to understand that for reentrants it was often safer to not recognize sexual abuse, talk about it, or deal with it. So then, how do you share information about services for trauma that people are too afraid to talk about? How do you encourage programs to (knowingly) work with those who bear the burdens of stigma and misunderstanding? 

Our team relied on each other as co-learners as we realized together that 1) the stigma of incarceration and criminal records tend to bury the fact that they are survivors too, and 2) our rape crisis programs were not intentionally developed with formerly incarcerated people in mind. 

That being the case, there are things we can practice to create cultures of safety for survivors. One is considering the language that we use to talk about survivors who are formerly incarcerated. Just as we work to achieve a shared language around sexual violence that reaches all survivors, we can practice person first language as a way to reduce the stigma of incarceration. 

Language that emphasizes a person’s humanity helps service providers more easily see the person who has survived sexual violence rather than the “perpetrator” for whom the experience of rape is sometimes considered just a “normal” part of prison life. We emphasize the importance of person-first language: not an inmate, felon, or excon, but a formerly incarcerated person or youth in detention. Or even better, mother, father, daughter, auntie. 

In the Executive Summary of People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage, the authors report on the “quantitative and qualitative research to document trends in how the press describes people directly impacted by the criminal justice system and the effect of their language choices on public opinion” which shows us the impact on those returning home (p 3). 

Respondents were exposed to mock newspaper headlines and ledes that used either dehumanizing or people first language to test the impact of the word choices being made by the media. Seventy Five percent of these mock news stories (6/8) showed significantly lower support for reform or for the people discussed in the story when dehumanizing language was used. Respondents 50 years or older, a group that is more likely to be rural, white, and conservative, were the most likely to shift their views based on the language used (p 3).

Directly impacted people have long argued for people first language and demonstrated the ways in which dehumanizing labels make it harder for them to successfully live and thrive. This new research also shows that they entrench bias in the public and make it more difficult to advance reforms that would support, empower, and free those impacted by the criminal justice system (p 4).

In “An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language,” by Eddie Ellis, the founder of The Center for Nuleadership on Urban Solutions, draws our attention to the power of “naming” throughout civilization, and argues how “calling me inmate, convict, prison, felon, or offender indicates a lack of understanding of who I am, but more importantly, what I can be (p 1).” Ellis also shares these recommendations to weave into our speech habits:

  1. Be conscious of the language you use. Remember that each time you speak, you convey powerful word picture images.
  2. Stop using the terms offender, felon, prisoner, inmate, and convict. 
  3. Substitute the work PEOPLE for these other negative terms.
  4. Encourage your friends, family and colleagues to use positive language in their speech, writing, publications and electronic communications (p 2).

As DeAnna Doskins and Zoe Towns write: “carceral labels compound punishment by reducing people to their worst moments, codifying stigma and haunting people for years after sentences are served.” And when that occurs, we reinforce the barriers for these survivors of sexual violence to get the help that they need. 

The words we choose and the language we use have power. The changes, however, are gradual, imperceptible even. But isn’t everything like that? Small, intentional acts practiced daily over time bring growth and change. Collectively, we can maximize our impact for good when we choose to SEE and CENTER the humanity of ALL. 

Blog post by Courtney Dunkerton, Anti-Human Trafficking Specialist


Sources Cited

Elderbroom, B., F. Rose, & Z. Towns, (2021). People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage. Retrieved from People First: The Use and Impact of Criminal Justice Labels in Media Coverage .

Ellis, E. (n.d.) An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language. Retrieved from  An Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language.

Hoskins, D & Z. Towns. (August 25, 2021) How the Language of criminal justice inflicts lasting harm. The Washington Post. [Editorial]. Retrieved from Opinion | How the language of criminal justice inflicts lasting harm .